Thursday, May 7, 2009

Piano Playing - II

We lived in rural Southeastern Indiana. At the time this photo of my mother with me and my little brother was taken the tiny farm house had no electricity or phone, no running water and my father had horses instead of a tractor. They had waited out the worst of the Depression to get married.

My mother would probably have liked to have had a career -- although that word was not used much back then -- a job would have been fine, especially writing for a newspaper. That never happened. Like many women, being a good wife and mother was her career. She took mothering seriously. Raising a daughter meant providing at least some things she did not have and that she considered necessary for a well rounded woman. Piano playing was, perhaps, the creme de la creme. She was not very musical, my father had sawed at a fiddle but that soon dropped by the wayside.

Somehow they acquired a big old upright piano during my sixth year. Prosperity was beginning to come to the farmlands -- not much prosperity but enough that I didn't know how poor we were until much later when I had an adult perspective. No one around us had much more than we and no one had even heard of television so we weren't exposed to a richer way of life. What we saw in movies was all fantasy and magazines too. Still electrification had come and so had a telephone. Dad had sold the horses, the piano teacher in town, who began me in the first John Thompson piano book. I still remember the words of the simple first song that could be played with the right hand alone, thumb on middle C. "Off I go to music land, training ear and eye and hand."

Mom set the precedent. When I was lazy and didn't practice toward spring of that year she said, "No more lessons until you're ready to do it right." Within two years I was ready to learn although I didn't want to go back to Mrs. Creech because she had a Downs syndrome son who was large and gentle but whose difference frightened me. I didn't tell anyone because I knew it was shameful to feel that way about him.

So I went to Janette, whose last name I have forgotten, once a week for a dollar a lesson, in the next town. I worked my way through the John Thompson books. By the time I was twelve I was competent enough to play the piano at the tiny country church we attended which had only a small spinet piano on which an older woman thumped out the tried and true Baptist hymns. She was not always well and I was pressed into replacing her. The Sunday School superintendent understood I was scared but no one else in the congregation could play the piano. He told me each week what hymns would be s sung next Sunday and I took the hymnal home and practiced them all week along with my lesson.

I don't remember a conversation at home but I think my parents were proud of me. I was at first nervous enough to feel my mouth go dry, my breath shallow and my palms sweaty, When I heard myself play a wrong note I wanted to crawl inside the piano and disappear. But the congregation sang loudly -- and mostly badly but with enthusiasm. And they told me how good it was I was there to play for them. Surely my mother knew that she was giving me an important lesson in self-confidence and in responsibility to a community, to share what talents one had. Eventually I understood how badly I had played -- the left hand usually hit it's keys a split second after the right. I do remember my mother saying playing the piano would make me popular. It didn't. But it gave me much, much more important things. More about that in the future.


Anne said...

Yes that is wonderful that you played publicly at an early age, in that way. You got to face your fears in an arena that was actually quite supportive even though it might not have felt that way at the time. Good for you to take away the lessons learned from that.

I also am struck by the lovely photo you post. It seems to tell a story all by itself. I imagine your mother not being too pleased about having this photo taken, holding on to a squirming toddler while the photographer adjusts everything just right, thinking of all the things she should be doing rather than sitting in an armchair in the garden with the squirming toddler and the obviously displeased young girl (who clearly would much rather be anywhere else but crammed into that small chair with her mother and little brother!). I'm guessing the photographer is Dad, attempting to preserve a happy moment in his small family's daily life for future display and admiration, and to bring back memories of a lovely spring? summer? day.

Or that's the story I imagine from your photo.

June Calender said...

Thanks for your comment, Anne. Actually I don't know the story behind the photo. I assume it was Dad sith the Brownie camera. There's a note on the back, Oct. '40. Both my parents' birthdays and their anniversary was in October so I imagine it was on one of those days. Probably your extrapolations about her feelings and mine are correct.